This week, let me urge you to read Mark chapter 6 as we continue our journey through this great gospel!
Mark 7:1-8 says,
“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” 6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
The Jewish people had three different kinds of laws. First, there was the moral law, as expressed in the ten commandments. Second, there was the civil law, the law which governed Israel as a nation-state in the Old Testament. Third, there was the ceremonial law, which is found in texts like Leviticus. The ceremonial law was largely designed to set the people of Israel apart from the other nations around it, to designate Israel as a holy nation.
In addition to these laws, the scribes and Pharisees had developed a list of their own
man-made rules that they layered on top of the ceremonial law. These were human traditions and regulations that did not have their origin in God, but in man. The scribes and Pharisees wanted to be so certain about keeping God’s laws that they added their own set of boundaries to God’s laws—they did this to assure themselves that they didn’t even get close to violating God’s commandments.
When Jesus has conflict with the scribes and Pharisees, it is often over his flouting of the ceremonial law, or the human traditions formulated by the religious leaders. In this text from Mark 7, the scribes and Pharisees take Jesus and his disciples to task for disregarding the traditions regarding the washing of hands. They are upset because Jesus is not as scrupulous as they are in keeping the details of the traditions.
When Jesus responds, he makes it clear that sometimes rite is wrong. His opponents are all about external rulekeeping, but they have ignored the real issue: the condition of the heart. They are obsessed with observing the tiniest details of the law while losing sight of the core issues of faith. They major in minors and minor in majors. So Jesus says in Mark 7:8,
“You have let go of the commands of God ad are holding on to human traditions.”
Christians in every age are vulnerable to this temptation. We can become preoccupied with external matters that don’t matter to God. I have known churches where tension developed because the ‘order of worship’ was changed on Sundays. I have seen Christians get upset over petty issues like carpet colors and seating arrangements. In most cases, the attitude is something like this: “We’ve never done it that way before.” This focus on doing things in a certain way often ignores the freedom we have in Christ. It belies an inordinate concern with externals, instead of zeroing in on issues of the heart.
This text calls all of us to ask God for the proper perspective. And to ask God to give Him what He most wants—a heart that loves Him and others!